Keep quiet about it

Alan Ryan

  • Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe by Bart Schultz
    Cambridge, 858 pp, £40.00, June 2004, ISBN 0 521 82967 4

This is an extraordinary – and extraordinarily interesting – book, a model of intellectual biography. Henry Sidgwick’s day job was Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. He is today best known as the author of Methods of Ethics, a work that philosophers still mine, and the model for modern masterpieces such as John Rawls’s Theory of Justice and Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. But Sidgwick was one of those terrifyingly hard-working Victorians whose day job was a small part of what they got through, and although his moral philosophy gets very adequate treatment from Bart Schultz, it occupies barely a quarter of the volume.

Sidgwick was one of the founding fathers of Newnham College (his wife, Eleanor, was assistant to the first principal, Annie Clough, and succeeded her as the second principal); he was one of the modernisers of late Victorian Cambridge; he was president of the Society for Psychical Research, and unmasked innumerable fraudulent mediums while wistfully hoping eventually to encounter the real thing; he was the author not only of works of philosophy, but of the Principles of Political Economy and The Elements of Politics; he was more than well connected: one sister married E.H. Benson, the future archbishop of Canterbury, another married the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Lord Rayleigh. Eleanor’s brother was the future prime minister Arthur Balfour. Sidgwick knew a great deal about the inner workings of English politics as the various Irish and imperial crises unfolded throughout the last third of the 19th century; the unease those crises provoked permeated his economics and politics, and he was constantly being asked for his thoughts about them.

That might suggest that Sidgwick led a wholly public life, engrossed in good works on the public stage. Nothing could be further from the truth. His friendship with John Addington Symonds was a central feature of his life. For much of the 20th century Symonds was more famous for his seven-volume History of the Renaissance in Italy than for his contributions to Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion; but in his own day, his far from secret homosexuality made him a scandalous figure, just as it made him a hero of Gay Liberation when he was rediscovered in the 1960s. Sidgwick was the embarrassed but unshocked recipient of Symonds’s confidences about his homosexual attachments and adventures; and he did his best to act as something of an ambassador from the straight to the gay world, trying to restrain Symonds from too straightforwardly self-destructive a path while also trying to take back to the straight world the imaginative insights that he found in Symonds’s rethinking of sexuality and male friendship. Not unreasonably, Symonds thought that a more accurate understanding of ‘Greek Ethics’ had implications for Victorian morality, and Sidgwick was very willing to take him seriously.

Given these disparate aspects of Sidgwick’s life Schultz has to be much more than a careful philosophical analyst. He is certainly a scrupulous and well-read analyst, but he also offers, among many other things, a nuanced history of the erosion of orthodox religious belief among Victorian intellectuals, an account of the attractions of Walt Whitman for sexual radicals who had a vague inkling that democracy and sexual openness were intimately connected, an extended assault on the unselfconscious racism and imperialism of Sidgwick’s political writings, and an account of Sidgwick’s interest in spiritualism that does more to make his half-belief sympathetic (if not entirely intelligible) than any I have seen.

It’s not surprising that it has taken Schultz 18 years to create this massive book; it has been time well spent. Fortunately his publishers have allowed him to quote at the length that readers of a Victorian Life and Letters were accustomed to. In this context it makes a great difference. Sidgwick wrote slowly in both of two different senses. The process of composition was invariably long and painful; and what he composed was a form of expository prose that took a very long time to unveil its meaning, and which was characterised by endless hesitations and second thoughts, doubts and qualifications elaborated to the last degree. On many subjects, he was unsure that he should say anything at all, so fearful was he of causing confusion or distress; when he was prepared to speak his mind, he remained exceedingly anxious to say only what he felt it right to say. Letting him speak his mind slowly is a very good way of conveying both the power of that mind and the reticence of its owner.

Symonds, on the other hand, had little inhibition and no reluctance to say what he thought – a fact that caused Sidgwick and his other friends much anxiety. In his case, long quotation serves a wholly different but equally valuable purpose: allowing the reader to experience Symonds’s torrential, and often anguished outpourings at first hand. All the same, this is a book that the reader has to work at; it is as lucid and brisk-moving as a work of this sort can well be; but Sidgwick was the first professional moral philosopher in England – Mill was a gifted amateur – and the reader needs an interest in and some acquaintance with modern moral philosophy to get out of Schultz’s account everything he puts in. Conversely, readers who think that Schultz is right not to reduce Sidgwick to the author of the one book that happens to be well thought of in academic circles today, have to come to this biography with some sense of the way in which eminent Victorians – Lytton Strachey toyed with the idea of including Sidgwick among his victims – suffered agonies of doubt about almost everything other than the virtues of the upper-middle-class intelligentsia.

Sidgwick was a very Victorian thinker; he was born the year after Queen Victoria came to the throne and died the year before she did. He wrote moral philosophy against the background of the Church of England’s last faltering attempts to keep hold of the allegiance of students and their teachers in Oxford and Cambridge; without a sufficient sense of what it felt like to struggle as Sidgwick did with the question of where reticence about our doubts turns into simple duplicity, it is hard to appreciate the peculiarities of both his style and his doctrine.

One other aspect of Sidgwick’s life that Schultz makes much of was his membership of the Cambridge Apostles. The society was not a base for Victorian gay liberation; its most pressing concern in its early years was the crisis in Anglicanism, and Symonds was in any event one of the unlikelier products of Benjamin Jowett’s Balliol. But the Apostolic practice of unsparing self-analysis and the Apostolic ideal of absolute honesty and openness with one’s intellectual intimates certainly fed into the late Victorian revolt against repression and hypocrisy. It is ironic that to ‘Bloomsbury’ Sidgwick represented all the stuffiness against which it was in revolt, while the values that Bloomsbury stood for were those he had done as much as anyone to foster.

Henry Sidgwick was born in 1838 in the Yorkshire town of Skipton, where his father was headmaster of Ermysted’s Grammar School. His father died in 1841, and the family soon moved to Bristol, where they settled in Redland, in a house now part of the university. In his teens, Sidgwick went to Rugby. Although Thomas Arnold had died in 1841, the school retained the impress of his high-minded and reforming personality, and Sidgwick’s mother overcame her doubts about English boarding schools – though she took up residence in a house opposite the school, which suggests some anxiety. Among Sidgwick’s school contemporaries was T.H. Green, whose impact in Oxford and beyond was often compared with Sidgwick’s in Cambridge – generally to Sidgwick’s disadvantage. The more important immediate influence was provided by Edward Benson, who was about to become an assistant master at Rugby and Sidgwick’s brother-in-law. Eleven years older than Henry, he seems to have been the prime mover in the decision that Henry should go to Rugby and then not to Balliol, but rather to Trinity College, Cambridge, Benson’s own college.

Sidgwick stayed at Trinity for the rest of his life. His career was not untroubled. He became an agnostic, and suffered agonies of doubt about retaining a fellowship that required him to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles. It was in character that it took him several years to decide what to do; the Apostles subscribed to a doctrine of absolute openness within the closed circle of their fellow initiates, but they also followed F.D. Maurice, the Christian Socialist and an Apostle of an earlier generation, in thinking it wrong to unsettle other people by too much dwelling on one’s private misgivings. In the end, Sidgwick resigned his fellowship shortly before the repeal of the Test Act made the issue moot.

Two permanent anxieties stayed with him. The first was the question of what might survive the demise of traditional Christian belief, not just as a matter of metaphysics but as a practical matter. If there was a future life of some kind, and what happened in it was affected by what we did in this life, then some of the old supports for morality might remain in place. Philosophers have always divided on the necessity of supernatural sanctions for morality, and ever since Plato, many have been divided within themselves. In mid-Victorian Britain, Mill’s view that a somewhat diluted ‘religion of humanity’ would provide quite enough support was very much the minority view; Mill thought that solidarity with our fellow human beings and a regard for great figures would suffice. Comte’s disciples thought that a mixture of reverence for women and devotion to the earth as the ground of existence would be needed and would require ritual support. Sidgwick hoped that one or other of the mediums investigated by the Society for Psychical Research would come up with the goods.

Sidgwick’s other anxiety was whether a rational basis could be found for morality. This was the subject of Methods of Ethics, the first edition of which was published in 1874. His answer was deeply ambivalent. It was not, he thought, that there was no rational basis for morality but rather that reason supported both a dispassionate utilitarianism and an equally dispassionate egoism. He was a utilitarian – that is, he subscribed to the view that the test of moral principles was whether they promoted ‘the greatest happiness’ – but he got to the principle of utility by an unusual route. Earlier utilitarians began with the thought that each of us minds about our own happiness and went on to claim that all of us should mind about the happiness of everyone. Oceans of ink have been spilled on the invalidity of this argument.

Sidgwick’s apparatus was quite different and very hard to describe briefly. Cambridge was the home of philosophical intuitionism: the view that our minds were attuned to the structure of the universe, both as to the nature of reality and as to the basis of ethics. The most impressive representative of this view was the Rev. William Whewell, master of Trinity, and a formidable historian and philosopher of science. Mill was deeply contemptuous of intuitionism; it seemed to him to confuse entrenched mental habits with the truth about the world, and to support social conservatism with mental conservatism. It is the target of On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, and although Sidgwick was both a liberal and a feminist, he was much more cautious than Mill.

Sidgwick relied on a mixture of intuitionism and rationalism. What he is best remembered for is that he asked his readers to consider matters ‘from the point of view of the universe’. Bernard Williams was only one of the recent critics who have argued that the universe has no point of view. In any case, the question is not what the universe thinks, but what we think, and even if the universe had a point of view, it is not obvious that we are under any greater an obligation to do what the universe wants than we are to do what anyone else wants. What an appeal to the point of view of the universe achieves, however, is to make impartiality central to ethics; so far as the universe is concerned, my happiness is exactly as important as anyone else’s and my happiness in ten years’ time exactly as important as my happiness today.

The dangerousness of utilitarianism was what emerged most clearly from Sidgwick’s attempt to generate an account of utilitarianism defended from the point of view of the universe. Someone who really thought only of maximising the amount of happiness in the universe would not take promises seriously – since keeping a promise might be less than optimific – and would be an alarming parent, spouse or child, since at any moment, the optimific thing might be to betray one’s nearest and dearest. Ever since Bentham, there have been many arguments to show that our ordinary ethical rules are useful short cuts to the utilitarian goal, but Sidgwick also offered the worrying thought that if one were a utilitarian, it might be a good idea to keep quiet about it.

This is what Bernard Williams denounced as ‘Government House morality’: the notion that the truth about ethics should be available only to an enlightened elite who can be trusted to manage the affairs of the unenlightened. This may be what underlies the most striking feature of Schultz’s view of Sidgwick. For all his sympathy with much, perhaps most, of Sidgwick’s concerns and anxieties, Schultz very much dislikes the taken-for-granted imperialism and (on Schultz’s view at least) racism that permeate his politics.

As Schultz acknowledges, Sidgwick thought long and carefully about the rights of labour, the needs of Ireland, and the relationship between Britain and its colonial empire. But he had difficulty in not giving the English ruling class the benefit of the doubt. Whether any of this is racist is far from clear, however; and one of Schultz’s few deficiencies as a biographer is that he is cloth-eared about quite what terms such as ‘race’ meant in late 19th-century Britain. ‘Scientific racism’, as it came to be known, was a minority taste, and just about any distinguishable group might be described as a ‘race’ in some context or other, the Basques and the Bretons as readily as the ‘Hindoos’. Ethnicity, colour, religion, regional origin and language might all provide the basis.

Schultz agrees that what Sidgwick really thought – much like Mill before him, and like many members of the British public afterwards – was that the distinction was one of fitness for self-government, and did not imply a ‘racial’ hierarchy so much as an educational one. One might demur as Schultz does at the thought that ‘progress’ for subcontinental Indians or black Africans consisted in their turning into Englishmen of a somewhat different colour. The view that the world was a sort of public school in which the English were the prefects and everyone else gradually moved from fagging for their superiors in the lower third to becoming prefects themselves in the sixth form was certainly preposterous; but it was more absurd than wicked, and it was not an affliction of middle-class liberals alone, as a glance as Marx’s writing on imperialism demonstrates.

The triumph of Schultz’s book is his treatment of Sidgwick’s interest in the paranormal. On the face of it, spiritualism is an odd place to look for a substitute for Christianity. The sheer banality of the messages that mediums claimed to receive from the beyond compares badly with Jehovah’s revelations to his prophets, and the mysteries of the incarnation and resurrection matter rather more than the survival of Jim from 33 Guildford Avenue. One of the mediums investigated by Sidgwick was famous for making a melon move at the far end of a dining table – though only in dim light. Even at his most benign, Schultz can’t help wondering what Sidgwick imagined to be the spiritual significance of a twitching melon.

But Schultz knows the answer. What Sidgwick wanted was some assurance that the universe was ‘friendly’. ‘Is the universe friendly to man?’ was, indeed, a famous question for the best part of a century, answered and evaded by Victorian sages on both sides of the Atlantic. Non-extinction would provide some hope that the universe might not merely have a point of view but might be keeping a benign eye on us. The Christian myth might be no more than a myth; but when superstition was peeled away, perhaps something was left. An obvious question is whether Sidgwick tried to tell those he left behind when he died in 1900 what, if anything, he had discovered the other side of the grave. His widow and his friends set about finding out.

A medium came up with the goods. If anything lent credibility to the scripts so produced, it was their enigmatic and hesitant quality: the wonderfully deflationary thought, ‘We no more solve the riddle of death by dying than we solve the problem of life by being born,’ was followed by: ‘I am not oppressed by the desire that animates some of us to share our knowledge or optimism with you all before the time. You know who feels like that; but I am content that you should wait.’ Another message expressed the anxiety that almost kept Sidgwick from saying or writing anything; he was, said the script, ‘often uneasy for he had no solution to offer in place of those which he destroyed – destroyed quite as much by his silence as by the spoken word’.